Posted by: Allyson | September 17, 2008

Thinking more about conscience and medicine

Yesterday at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like, I summarized and commented on an NPR feature on the HHS “conscience” proposal.  This morning on the drive to work, I was thinking more about the comments made by the nurse and the EMT, about how, as medical professionals, they can’t let their beliefs trump their patients rights, and that they’re required to treat everyone, regardless of what they think about an individual patient’s morals.  And while I am not a medical professional, I realize that, 3 or 4 times a year, I help do the same thing.

I’ve been a regular blood donor since I was 18.  My dad and I used to go together; it was a bonding thing.  My father taught me from a young age about the importance of donating blood (if you’re physically and psychologically able), about how valuable it is to give a part of your physical body to help someone else who needs it.  Donating blood is pretty much my favorite form of community service.  Sure, I’m glad to donate money to the public library and the EFF, and I’m proud of the work I do with the Lilith Fund.  But with donating blood, I’m actually giving another person a physiological second chance.  I am quite literally helping to save a life.  Plus, I’m type O-negative, the universal donor (although actually I think O-positive is more universal?).  I’m not going to have kids, but I’m saving people who need transfusions.  How’s that for pro-life, eh? 

Anyway, getting off my high horse, I realize that once that pint of blood leaves my veins, I have no claim to it anymore.  It’s no longer part of my body, and I certainly don’t get to decide who is entitled to it.  The donation I made last week might have gone to save the life of a drunk driver who will now live even though she or he killed someone instantly in a crash.  Granted, that person might actually serve a prison sentence for their actions, but nonetheless, the choice to drink took an innocent person’s life.  But I have no say or control over that.  I give my blood, and the doctors give that blood to people who need it, regardless of the reason. 

Of course, I technically do have a choice.  I could refuse to donate blood, out of fear that it will go to someone I don’t think deserves it.  But then what about all the people that I think do deserve it?  I could be cheating those people out of a life that I’m physically able to give them.  Furthermore, I’m not a judge; I have no right to sentence someone to death for vehicular homicide, no matter how abhorrent I find it.   I have no right to decide who should live and who should die; it’s not ethical for me to pick and choose like that.  I need to trust that the court system will  bring the drunk driver to justice, whatever justice entails.  Furthermore, it’s even less ethical for me to refuse to donate blood just because I might not like who gets it.  Finally, I’m opposed to the death penalty.  Denying blood to a drunk driver just because that person committed a crime would be a form of death penalty (at least for me).  In good consciene, I have do donate, and I have to accept that anyone has a right to the blood I (voluntarily) give up, because my morals and ethics do not trump their rights to medical care.

I’m not a doctor.  I don’t have to make patient care choices every day.  But I make a choice to donate blood, and actually, for me it’s not really a choice.  It’s something that I personally feel I have to do as often as is healthy and safe.  (Note: I am not judging anyone for choosing not to donate.  Your body, your choice.)  Because I can donate, and because I have a universal blood type, I think that I should donate blood, and let it go to anyone who needs it, regardless of whether or not their views or actions conflict with my conscience.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience know that innocent people might suffer because I chose not to donate blood to prevent “bad” people from receiving necessary medical treatment. 

After all, what if the crash victim survived long enough to make it to the hospital, and what if that person was B-negative, and the hospital only had type A available?  What if there wasn’t any O-negative available because I had decided not to donate in order not to violate my conscience? 

In theory, medicine is one of the most selfless disciplines out there, because whether you’re a world-famous neurosurgeon, an EMT working the graveyard shift, or a volunteer blood donor, you have to put your beliefs aside to help others do what is best for them.  You choose to put your own values on hold to help people enact their own agency and have control over their bodies and health.  The HHS proposal attempts to make medicine a selfish profession, in which doctors, nurses, technicians, and even volunteers, can become tyrants, refusing to allow women bodily autonomy.

Crossposted at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like.



  1. I recently found out that in Canada if you are a sexually active gay male you cannot give blood or participate in organ donation. Even in this life saving business we continue to stigmatize certain bodies. There are over 40k people waiting on the list and yet we have decided through fear and ignorance to exclude certain bodies. Giving blood or donating organs is life saving but some bodies will never have the opportunity to make a change because we have socially categorized them as diseased.

  2. To Renee: That’s Stephen Harper for you. When he first came into office, he tried to ban gay marriage again. It was defeated, but he really doesn’t like homosexuals.

  3. Renee-

    I remember how disappointed I was when I saw that news on your blog earlier this week. Definitely frustrating. I’ve been vocal about the discrimination in the United States, but there definitely needs to be a more active effort.

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